Is it possible to create sustainable animal tourism that benefits both man and nature? John Roberts, director of elephants at Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort in Chiang Rai, Thailand, explains why you can’t necessarily have both and where the luxury travel market can make a difference.
How does one get to have a job title like “director of elephants?”
I was working in Chitwan National Park in Nepal doing conservation: wild tigers, rhinos and also learning a bit about captive elephants. In 2003, when Anantara bought this resort in Thailand, I started out as an elephant camp coordinator. Then, because I had to be director of something, I said director of elephants. I’m just a glorified mahout, really.
When you say “captive elephants” what exactly are the issues you’re dealing with?
As a species, wild elephants are facing problems like habitat loss and fragmentation of habitat. So even where there are some wild elephants, they can’t get to one another. We also have a population in captivity of about 3,500 elephants and I think the biggest threat to that population is unregulated tourism.
What constitutes a negative form of elephant tourism?
There’s one business model proliferating in which you have a 10-minute ride on the back of elephant. To make money, the camp has to keep your elephant working for 10 to 12 hours a day. It’s hard for the elephant and as a guest you learn nothing about elephants.
Can you spot elephant lurking behind John Roberts in our exclusive video interview on non-exploitative elephant tourism?
What is a better way of doing that?
A good, old-fashioned trekking camp may have clientele who sit on a saddle and go around for an hour. You pay a reasonable amount and then, in the best of these camps, the elephant gets the afternoon to go into the forest with its friends and have some elephant time. Then, there is the traditional kind of camp that involves riding on the neck of an elephant, instead of on a saddle on its back, to be a mahout for a few hours. You get to make a bond with your elephant and mahout. Something about that whole scene is more rewarding and far more interactive.
Tell me about the mahout lifestyle. Is this a generations-old type of business?
Certainly, in the cases of our mahouts, which is part of the reason why we still have captive elephants. For 4,000 years, people have been catching elephants and looking after them. If a family has three sons they need three elephants and then need to find work for those three elephants to do.
Is the idea to make elephant tourism a sustainable business or is it to make the mahout lifestyle no longer viable?
That’s the dichotomy. We are a sustainable business and we need to be so to look after the elephants and to encourage other people to use our business model. But we need to not make it so lucrative that other people want to get in the game. Since 3,500 elephants aren’t going to disappear overnight, we’re doing our best to start education in the home villages. And if fewer people going to being mahouts, we have to give them alternatives.
So what you’re doing is a mix of animal conservation and helping the local community as well?
We’re making sure we include the mahout in the equation and work with the community. There are a lot of people out there who believe every elephant should be free — I’m one of them, I just don’t think it can happen overnight. If it is going to happen, it must be with the consent of the elephant-owning communities.
That seems to be the formula for any community plan: everyone has to have a seat at the table.
I was recently at a conference about elephant conservation in India, and there were no mahouts from the traditional communities. There were a lot of scientists, government people, veterinarians, and people like myself who were foreigners. But nobody was talking to the people who look after the elephants day-to-day. One of the things we have to change is to give mahouts a voice and then we can start working with them to solve problems.
So this is something that’s developing and changing over the years.
I think it will. And the tourism market for elephants is changing as a lot of people are coming down from mainland China. A few years ago we didn’t have these big camps where elephants work 12 hours a day. We were dealing with a completely different set of problems where we thought we were winning and then the business changed.
What are your hopes or concerns about how fast tourism is growing in Southeast Asia?
My hopes are that we can continue to support the good business models. Especially with the largest growing market, which is the Chinese market, we need to educate about choosing a good camp and then use that to look after the elephants we have. My fear, I guess, is that won’t happen: that the grand message out there to boycott all elephant tourism will affect the good camps. We need to find the newest approach to give the camps that are willing to improve the tools to do so.
Photo credit: Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort